I confess. I'm one of those wine lovers who regard Nebbiolo as more than a wine grape. I won't say Nebbiolo wines provide a mystical experience. But some get pretty close.
A recent Nebbiolo pilgrimage across Northern Italy led me inevitably to the door of Ar.Pe.Pe.—the perfectionist, traditionalist producer in the grape's alpine frontier of the Valtellina valley bordering Switzerland.
And what a door it is.
The winery threshold is carved into a steep mountainside, terraced with vineyards, in the appellation's Grumello zone. Here the centuries-old terraces, built from 10-foot drywalls of schist and granite, lead way up to a medieval castle perched in the distance.
Inside, I was immediately struck by the cathedralic vastness of Ar.Pe.Pe.'s cellars. The family company, after all, produces a modest 5,000 cases. But this is a winery that could produce hundreds of thousands more.
Ar.Pe.Pe.'s oversized mountain digs are part of one family's dramatic rise, fall and phoenix-like rebirth.
These 1960s-era cellars of the Arturo Pelizzatti winery once produced more than 160,000 cases annually of traditional Valtellina Nebbiolo (locally known as Chiavennasca). Then in 1973, it all went south. A family dispute forced the sale of the winery and the Pelizzatti brand to a Swiss company that merged it with Nino Negri and another major winery. More than a decade later, all were sold to the conglomerate Gruppo Italiano Vini.
Arturo Pelizzatti Perego—the winemaking grandson of the Pelizzatti founder—stewed at the cheapening of his family label.
"The brand was destroyed by overproduction," says Pelizzatti Perego's enologist daughter, Isabella. "It became a crap wine."
Determined to restore his family's name, Pelizzatti Perego launched a new winery in 1984 with about 25 acres of vines he had managed to hold onto. Two years later, he bought back the old family cellars. Because the Pelizzatti brand was taken, he used an acronym of his full name.
"Ar.Pe.Pe. was in a way a revenge," Isabella says. "My father wanted to show his family that he could make wine in a quality way and be successful without them."
Today Ar.Pe.Pe. appears on top Italian wine lists, and the company is thriving thanks to a healthy export market led by the United States.
"We had about 30 years in a dark period," says Isabella, a petite and serious woman whose eyes are rimmed by a pair of thick red designer glasses. "Now people better understand the Valtellina."
Pelizzatti Perego died in 2004 and was succeeded by his three children: Isabella, 44, and her younger brothers, Emanuele and Guido, who are united in their meticulous attention to tradition and quality.
Ar.Pe.Pe. produces eight wines from Nebbiolo, all fermented with native yeasts in conical wood vats and aged in large chestnut and oak casks. In the 2014 vintage, following a poor growing season across Northern Italy in which acidity levels soared, Ar.Pe.Pe. plans to make only one wine—its entry-level, quaffable Rosso di Valtellina.
In better years, the winery's prestige bottling is a concentrated late-harvest wine called Ultimi Raggi made from partially dried grapes.
In between those two wines, things get pretty exciting. In good vintages, the winery makes three Valtellina Superiore Riservas (aged three years in barrel and a year in bottle) from three vineyard zones: the Grumello slopes above the winery, Inferno and Sassella.
In exceptional vintages, Ar.Pe.Pe. produces three single-vineyard crus—Grumello Buon Consiglio, Sassella Rocce Rosse and Sassella Vigna Regina—all released eight years after harvest.
What distinguishes Ar.Pe.Pe. from the region's leading producer, Negri, is its adherence to long aging and tradition. Its wines show none of the forwardness or oak flavors of Negri's modern bottlings.
Valtellina wines are in every respect lighter and leaner than their more famous Nebbiolo cousins in Barolo and Barbaresco and even northern Piedmont. They have their own set of aromas—think raspberries, flint and smoke for starters. Ar.Pe.Pe. wines deliver those notes with a lively, focused purity.
Some of Ar.Pe.Pe.'s most delicate Sassellas could make you think you're drinking a complex white. Others point to Burgundy. All make you feel you've happily fallen into a new frontier of Nebbiolo.
For more about the Valtellina, read "Extreme Nebbiolo, Part 1: In Negri's Inferno."